Issue 22 / Summer 2020
Then, in the beam of the flashlight, there’s a copperhead, dull rust against black pavement, moving, head up. Slow and inefficient, I think; it doesn’t seem like it’s getting anywhere, but it is moving with what looks like purpose, head pointing to the shaggy pile of leaves and brush on the shoulder. The dog doesn’t really see the snake, it seems, though I’ve stopped us both and the dog stands alert, looking expectantly in the direction that the flashlight’s pointing. I want to get closer because I don’t want to, defying the flood of hormones that my brain released when I first saw the s-shape moving (slithering!) against the street. The chemicals pump through my body—there is tingling, there is the catch of the breath, shortened, raspy, there is the alarming awareness of the heart preparing for exertion—and I think, no, stay calm, there’s nothing to fear. Which is true.
II. A Snake in the Grass Portends Two in Your Dreams
Snakes do not rear up and attack at lightning speed, or at least, copperheads don’t. As I well know, all the terrifying TV documentaries about dangerous animals zero in on species that don’t live where I live, in the central swath of North Carolina. In the ’70s, when I was a little kid, my brother and I would watch Wild Kingdom (“with host Marlin Perkins”), along with half of the U.S., learning about animals in Africa, India, or Australia that we might never see in person, but also learning to think of so-called exotic animals as either adorable (babies of almost any variety, bottle-fed by rangers and other rugged wildlife experts) or terrifying. Snakes fell into the latter category, although my brother and I handled our fear differently: he grew fascinated with snakes, reading about them and being brave enough to hold them at the Science Center’s annual “come handle the reptiles” day. I refused to touch them; I would feel a rush of anxiety just rounding the corner in a zoo’s reptile exhibit to find myself a foot away from heavy coils draped over a dead branch, a muscled tube pouring smoothly across a rockpile. There was never anything to be afraid of, but I developed a fearful reaction to the sight or idea of snakes, avoiding not only the natural beasts, but photos of them and bins of fake plastic snakes in toy stores. In my real life, both by the odds and by design, I rarely saw snakes, and the great majority of the ones I did see were small, innocuous, venom-less eaters of insects, frogs, rodents. I knew that they were helpful creatures, even before I knew concepts like “ecosystem,” “food chain,” or “biodiversity.” My father wanted the big, fast blacksnakes around to keep the mice under control, and he only killed copperheads that he found too close to our back door for comfort.
Nonetheless, I nightmared—a colony of snakes in the empty lot across the street, purposeful, voracious snakes modeled by my sleeping brain after the cobras that fascinated me and horrified me in Kipling’s Riki-Tiki-Tavi. When Indiana Jones complained, famously, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” I felt that he was a soulmate (Raiders of the Lost Ark, dir. Spielberg, 1981). It was tremendously gratifying to find a brave, suave, heroic figure whose fear was the same as mine. Perhaps I, too, could swashbuckle? Couldn’t Jones do almost anything, face down nearly any threat with a combination of courage and knowledge? The story of Achilles’ heel always seemed to be presented as a parable about the destructive power of even the smallest weakness, but couldn’t one read it from another angle and decide that a person of great strength (of any sort) could accomplish marvelous things despite a weakness or two? What if a person went out into the world thinking that way?
III. And You Will Strike Their Heel
No one’s surprised when I—or anyone—confess to a fear of snakes. In the Judeo-Islamic-Christian world, it’s the oldest fear, right up next to the fear of being naked. Genesis gives a vivid, mythical reason for the animosity between people and snakes, although, in fairness, the snake in that grass is much more symbol than animal, and the message is lost if we focus the vigilance we’re supposed to be exercising against temptations on avoiding the toxic fangs of our friendly neighborhood viper or cobra. In Genesis 3:15 (KJV), God reportedly says to the serpent, And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. We have kept that bargain, crushing the heads (or just cutting them off) of countless literal snakes, venomous or not, fabricating tabloid-tales about manifestations of ophidian threat from Gorgons and basilisks to snakes attacking people on airplanes (Snakes on a Plane, dir. Ellis, 2006) and rising with the freakish resonance of myth out of suburban toilets to infest the houses of the unwitting (“A Texas Boy . . .,” Larimer, The Washington Post, 2/3/17). If you need to get people whipped up about a peril sourced in the natural world, snakes make a good focal figure, at least in the U.S., where fear of snakes overshadowed even public speaking in Gallup polls of adults from both 1998 and 2001 (Gallup.com, “Snakes Top List…,” 3/19/01).But the fact is that most people in the nation, like me, never see a snake outside of a reptile exhibit in a zoo or nature-center.
Yet the fear seems so natural. Sure, a bear or a lion is more obviously dangerous, but that’s kind of the thing: snakes, at least the venomous ones, can do much more damage than they look like they ought to. They’re even, if you can get past the deep-seated revulsion that many of us feel at the sight of their smoothly scaly sides, beautiful. Most of them are small enough in proportion to humans that they strike us (no pun intended) as being a creature we might want to handle or seek as a pet. For those people with any degree of ophidiophobia, the sight of a person with a jewel-colored, glistening boa draped muscularly around her neck is a spectacle of fascination and horror at once. We imagine that gorgeous, inscrutable beast flexing itself almost imperceptibly against the tender skin of the handler’s neck, hugging it by increments to death. And we shudder.
IV. Nature and Nurture
Devoid of context despite my best effort to recall it, the memory eases into focus as if sighted in the scope of ancient, slow-adjusting binoculars, clear only in the center of the field, blurring and doubling kaleidoscopically around the circumference. My mother is shrieking. She’s in the living room, by herself, and I’m somewhere, probably the bedroom, by myself, and my brother is probably in his room alone, too. We are elementary-school age—I might be eight and my brother five, say—but my memory, recorded as it was from within my body, does not contain useful markers of my age. My father is not a part of this memory; I don’t know whether his absence is a fact or a feature of my recollection, whether he was at work or somewhere in the car by himself, or just outdoors, beyond my scope. My mother is making noise, which is strange for her; normally, our house resides in preternatural quiet, enforced by both parents. They do not tolerate noise, unless they’re making it, and my brother and I have learned to mouse around when we wake up before them, tiptoeing out to the kitchen to sneak a spoonful of peanut butter from the jar, turning the TV on as low as it will go to forestall scolding. My mother is screaming. The urgency draws me to the living room, even though it is a fearful thing to hear my usually soft-voiced mother scream. She is standing at the window that faces the cow pasture; it is summer, the exposure is southern and clear of tall trees. She is fully lit, and I can see that she’s agitated, her hands moving without knowing what to do. She is helpless. When I look at what she’s looking at, I see the fencepost with the homemade birdhouse, perhaps five yards away from us. Something black is flowing—I can see it flowing, like tar or a length of rubber tubing—out of the hole of the birdhouse. It loops; it seems to be oozing into and out of the birdhouse all at once. In the air around the structure, two bluebirds shriek and flutter and dive. My mother is crying, wretched and angry, saying no and stop. Her bluebirds, her beloved bluebirds’ eggs have become part of the food chain. The blacksnake has found its meal for the week; the birds have lost their children. The beautiful, glistening snake pours its cruel, sated body out of the house and down the fencepost, back to wherever it is safe to digest its meal. Its robbery is the perfect crime. Unstoppable, it recedes from view. The beautiful, distraught birds protest and mourn for as long as it is natural for them to do so. My beautiful mother, normally frightening in her impassivity, and unreadable, is furious and grief-stricken. The serpent has struck her heel.
Her loathing of snakes is well known to me, but it has never been edged with the blinding corona of real experience. Heretofore, there has been no narrative beyond the great archetype of Eve and the serpent to animate the phobia my mother has bequeathed to me. I can’t remember whether I had seen a snake in person before that day. Perhaps I had. Perhaps there is another story buried in my consciousness, too deep to unearth by effort. But this one seems to be enough. I watch my mother watch the natural world do what it does, what it must do, albeit in a particularly mythical and unjust-seeming way, and I witness her paralyzed rage. The memory blurs to a smear of lost time before she speaks of the snake’s theft. I am left to grapple with this wordless sight on my own.
V. Quadruplex Inheritance
Does anyone question their fear of what their mother fears? Given the gendered messages that we get from birth, it may be that girls are encouraged to emulate their mothers in fear as well as in other things, or that they are not discouraged, at very least. It may be that boys get to choose, for or against their mother’s fears, companion or savior. Most likely, it is far more complicated. The theory that traumatic experiences so profoundly affect the body that they change our DNA and become heritable has gained some traction in recent years, after a study at Emory showed that mice could inherit a fear of the smell of cherry blossoms (“Phobias May Be Memories . . .,” Gray, The Telegraph, 12/1/13). The roulette of genetic inheritance, always to thank or blame for one’s oddly shaped nose and bunions or shiny hair and healthy blood-pressure, expands to include the big psychological mindscapes—your father’s anxiety, your grandmother’s stoic resilience—and the small ones—your father’s fear of his father, your mother’s fear of helplessness. Who could hope to grow up fearless, then, awash as the world is in trauma and threat? No wonder we cry our way into sentience; no wonder we howl at the night until the person who taught us to fear it arrives to stand between us and the dark.
VI. Vigilance: Part Two
Holding the dog’s leash tightly, I watch the copperhead moving. The fear I defy is my mother’s: she could not bear to be helpless in a ruthless world. The snake is beautiful, a marvel of nature. It has no interest in threatening me, and I find myself rooting for its crossing, for its safety from the indifferent menace of cars. The dog and I continue down the street, still wary. One at a time, these serpents of inherited fear become snakes in the grass.
Jennifer Brown has taught creative writing and literature in high schools, colleges, summer programs, and festivals and has held residencies at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and the Vermont Studio Center. In 2018, she won the Linda Flowers Literary Award from the NC Humanities Council. Her essays and poems appear in North Carolina Literary Review, Atticus Review, Cagibi, and are forthcoming in L.A. Review, Copper Nickel, Cimarron Review, and Cinncinnati Review.